Medics in the Movies: M*A*S*H

Posted on November 13, 2010. Filed under: Movies to see before you die, Reviews | Tags: , , , , , , , |

Those of you who have been reading this for a while (ta, by the way) may know that I’ve just started a medical degree.  As part of my course, we all take one module from outside of the normal curriculum, probably so that we don’t go insane from too much pure Science.  One of the options just happened to be “Medics in the Movies” where you watch films with doctors in and then review them.  Sounded right up my street.

What this means for you guys is that over the next few months some movies will be popping up that are a bit of a departure from my normal choices (we’re watching one from each decade and from a variety of different countries).  If things go well, my writing might even get a little better.

Before we get on to the set movies, our first assignment was to choose any film that featured doctors and be ready to present it next week.  I chose M*A*S*H; a film I’ve always wanted to see but somehow never gotten around to.  Finally I had the perfect excuse.

M*A*S*H stands for Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, although we aren’t actually told that in the film.  In fact, we aren’t really told much about anything, with director Robert Altman preferring to let his audience make up their own minds about what they are seeing.  The only set up we get is the mellow opening music (the iconic Suicide is Painless) set over scenes of helicopters bringing in the wounded.

M*A*S*H is essentially a war film without the war.  The only gun shots heard during the movie are at half-time in the football match, and at no point does it get morbidly wrapped up in “the horror” of war.  Instead, Altman makes his political point through black comedy and in the graphic surgical depictions.  It’s a far more affecting way to make an anti-war statement, as we see the people trying to pick up the pieces and literally put the men back together, ready to send them back to the front.

There is an unexpected amount of realism in this movie.  The dialogue is largely improvised and often overlaps, a technique which I found strange at first but grew to appreciate, as in real life people don’t always wait for the other guy to finish his lines.  This also added to a lot of the humour between the apathetic General and his faithful sidekick Radar.

Perhaps I should back track a bit and talk about plot, although to be honest I there isn’t really one.  M*A*S*H follows the day-to-day lives of a group of army surgeons during the Korean War (*Trivia* The text in the opening scene locating the film in Korea was added later at studio insistence, as Altman deliberately left geographical; references out of the movie so that the location could easily be confused with Vietnam).  There isn’t really a story as such, we just follow the exploits of Hawkeye (Donald Sutherland), Trapper (Elliot Gould), and Duke (Tom Skerritt) as they find new ways to subvert the system.

The surgeons are often described as “medical mavericks,” which I can understand but don’t entirely agree with.  What struck me was that while out of the operating theatre they did everything they could to undermine authority and generally not follow the rules, once they were scrubbed in they were entirely professional.  I could go on about this for hours as it will probably make up the substance of my presentation, but in short, while Hawkeye and Trapper are essentially the antithesis of what we think of as a good doctor, they are so good at what they do that they can get away with it (kinda like House!)

M*A*S*H is kind of a boys film.  Not only because of the subject matter, but also the misogynistic view it takes of women.  At times even I felt sorry for “HotLips” even though she is incredibly annoying.  However, this is self-aware misogyny; Altman is satirising it as well as using it for easy laughs.

The humour of M*A*S*H is very dark, but at times very funny.  It’s often said that doctors tend to have a very black sense of humour as a coping mechanism, so if you scale that up to be dealing with horrific war injuries you can see what they were going for.  The scene in the Japanese hospital was probably my favourite, showing Gould and Sutherland at their cavalier best.  The comedy is contrasted with some pretty graphic surgical scenes, highlighting both the terrible injuries caused by the war and the incredibly poor conditions that the medical teams worked in.

The film ends very abruptly, with what could be an emotional point, as some characters get to go home while others are left behind.  M*A*S*H doesn’t dwell on the morose though.  Even dentist Painless’s suicide attempt is treated with a combination of apathy and humour (and some great Last Supper imagery, see pic above).  There is only one incidence of a character getting upset on screen, otherwise people seem (on the surface at least) to take everything in their stride.  Again, I think this goes back to a coping mechanism, as if people did start to let each loss get to them they would never be able to function.  By doing this, Altman allows the audience to feel emotions on the characters behalf, making his anti-war message all the more poignant.

M*A*S*H is heading its way straight on to the Movies to See list, and I strongly urge that you all do.  Whether you’re interested in the War, the Medicine, or you just want a laugh, this film has a bit of something for everyone.

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